Matt Hancock has refused to rule out extending England’s lockdown, increasing fears that Christmas could be cancelled by coronavirus.
The Health Secretary said he ‘hopes’ the current restrictions can be replaced with the previous system – but a key medical adviser warned at last night’s press briefing that the tiers would need to be ‘strengthened’ for months.
Public Health England’s Dr Susan Hopkins said the lowest tier of earlier measures had ‘little effect’ and suggested ministers would need to consider toughening them up ‘to get us through the winter months until the vaccine is available for everyone’. That suggests household mixing may be banned in tier one – potentially ruining family plans for Christmas gatherings, even if lockdown is lifted.
Mr Hancock said it was ‘too early for us to know’ whether coronavirus cases will be brought down sufficiently to ease the second shutdown on December 2, but the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly promised the measures will automatically expire on that date.
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But the PM’s insistence that the lockdown will end does not mean it cannot be extended.
A number of Conservative MPs are expected to rebel if an extension is put forward by the government, but if Labour backed the move it would be very likely to pass through Parliament.
Mr Hancock said last night: ‘It is too early for us to know what the number of cases will be as we come to the end of the current lockdown.
‘But we absolutely hope to be able to replace the national lockdown with a tiered system similar to what we had before.’
Dr Hopkins added: ‘We expect if the lockdown is working … that we will start to see cases decline over the next week.
‘We expect it will be longer to see hospital admissions, another week or so, but I think as long as we start seeing cases decline then we can start making a judgment about what are the right decisions that we make and what the opening up decisions that happen on December 2.’
She also said that Tier 2 of the local restrictions appeared to have worked in some areas but ‘not so well in others’.
Pubs were not closed in the original tier one or two rules, but there was a rule of six and a 10pm curfew in place. It is unclear what a strengthening of the tiers may mean for the venues if there is a return to the system.
Dr Hopkins added: ’We see very little effect from Tier 1 and I think when we look at what tiers may be there in the future, we will have to think about strengthening them in order to get us through the winter months until the vaccine is available for everyone.
‘We have recognised that the tiering of the country has had a different effect in each area.’
The intervention comes after more ‘tremendous’ news about vaccines, which moved a step closer after early data showed a new jab to be almost 95% effective in protecting against the virus.
Scientists welcomed US firm Moderna’s announcement about a jab that may be highly effective in preventing all age groups from getting ill, which follows news from Pfizer and BioNTech that its candidate was around 90% effective.
Mr Hancock said ‘great advances in medical science are coming to the rescue’, but admitted the UK had only secured five million doses of Moderna’s jab.
He added: ‘While there is much uncertainty, we can see the candle of hope and we must do all that we can to nurture its flame.
‘But we’re not there yet. Until the science can make us safe we must remain vigilant and keep following the rules that we know can keep this virus under control.’
In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will make an announcement on Tuesday over lockdown restrictions.
She has said that areas with ‘stubbornly high’ levels of the virus could be temporarily placed under more severe restrictions to give more flexibility for a ‘limited and careful easing’ of the rules over Christmas.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson is continuing to self-isolate after a meeting with MP Lee Anderson, who tested positive for Covid-19.
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